The word trim is heard, usually in company with the word neat, coming from old time sailors on occasion. Where a landsman might say “ship shape” to mean a place for everything and everything in its place, a sailor will use neat and trim. It’s one of those contradictions that are so typical of the sea.
The use of the word trim at sea is reflective of its Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Trymian, or trymann, meant not only “to make firm” but to set in order. This is the etymology that works best for most of the uses of the word aboard ship.
A ship is judged trim by her set on the water, either by her head or stern or on an even keel. The trim of the ship depends on the placement of her ballast, cargo, masts, armament and even her people and livestock. Packing a sailing ship on every deck just so is an art form and can mean the difference between a sluggish passage or a speedy arrival. In terms of a freebooter, it could surely mean catching a fat prize or being left empty handed and well behind.
Trim also means the finishing of a piece of lumber, be it planking for deck or gunnel or spars and masts. The trim of a ship’s wooden fittings could also affect her seaworthiness.
To say a ship was in trim indicated that all was neat and regular as in a man-of-war. To trim is to arrange the sails so that they are perfectly suited to catch the full advantage of any breeze. Trim of the hold also referred to the stowing of objects aboard, particularly ballast, stores and cargo. Trimmed refers to the sails being properly set so that they remain taught and do not miss stays when tacking. Similarly, trimmed sharp means arranging the sails so that in an unfavorable or “slant” wind the ship is still able to keep close to the breeze.
Trim the boat is an order for all oarsman and others aboard a ship’s boat to sit in such a uniform manner that the boat is in no danger of listing or capsizing. Though this may sound relatively simple it is, in fact, no mean feat particularly if one is rowing lubbers to or from shore. Best to put them in the middle, if at all possible.
Finally, and really only because of the sound of it, there is the word trimonier. This is the original French version of the Royal Navy rated post of timoneer. In the U.S. Navy such a one would be designated as helmsman or pilot or both.
Mind your trim then, mates, in every aspect. Fair winds until tomorrow at the very least.
Header: U.S. brig Niagra from the wonderful Historical Navy Ship Assoc website (which is serious porn for seafaring enthusiast, trust me)